How mixed reality could revolutionise retail

Originally published in Internet Retailing

We don’t need to be lectured on the current state of the retail industry. Many companies are finding themselves in a state of crisis as the high street continues to suffer from numerous closures, and are in desperate need of a way to turn their fortunes around. 

It seems clear at this point that the solution lies in implementing new technologies that can provide new, innovative experiences for customers. Out of all these, however, Mixed Reality (MR) has perhaps the most potential for retailers.
MR is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very close relative of the currently better-known Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies. However, while AR is used to overlay digital graphics onto real-world environments and VR immerses the user in a head-mounted simulation, MR uses a combination of both to deliver a unique, immersive experience. Users can interact with their physical surroundings while also benefiting from additional digital elements – something which could prove to be a game-changer in the retail world. 

This is the biggest benefit of MR. Put simply, it provides consumers with a totally new perspective that they otherwise would not have been able to enjoy.

Even with this basic explanation, the potential of MR within the retail space is easy to imagine. Retailers can stand in the middle of an empty retail space, for example, put on an MR headset such as the Microsoft Hololens, and immediately visualise how the furnished and fitted shop might look – without actually having to invest in any physical products. This is hugely beneficial – particularly as the in-store experience becomes more important to consumers seeking unique experiences.

In fact, MR can be easily integrated into the in-store experience itself. Take a car showroom, for instance. Currently we’re still used to having to flick through paper catalogues to find the model, colour and spec that takes our fancy. This changes entirely with MR. Instead, a customer can put on a headset and see a blank template of a car in front of them. From here, they can then have their desired options overlayed on top of it, so they can see the exact car they want to purchase right before their eyes – this is far more accurate than simply relying on the pictures in a catalogue.

MR technology and its use cases might currently seem like a pipe dream – a rose-tinted view of the future of retail – but the reality is this is something retailers can benefit fromtoday. The likes of Microsoft’s leading Hololens headset can easily be purchased by retailers and used to deliver incredible new features in retail environments. While many of these are currently limited to bricks-and-mortar stores, as MR becomes more mainstream we will surely see consumers benefiting from the immersive nature of MR in online retail environments, too. 

The primary stumbling block for many, however, is the cost of the technology. At this early stage, investing in MR is particularly expensive, and despite the clear benefits and its potential to bring customers back into physical high street shops, it is something that many retailers are unwilling to bet on – particularly in these tumultuous times.

This is where subscription models can prove their worth. In much the same way that many of us pay for our mobile phones or cars, there are models available to retailers that allow them to purchase cutting-edge technology such as MR via a rolling contract. The cost can be split into monthly payments over a period of several years, and this suddenly makes investment in technology far more affordable. The move from a CAPEX approach to an OPEX one also means they can continue to afford to operate smoothly at the same time. 

These subscription models also allow retailers to regularly update their technology assets, which means customers never have to deal with outdated equipment. This is especially crucial in the MR field – with Microsoft set to release the latest version of their Hololens headset next year, all retailers will want to ensure they have the most up-to-date versions to hand.

One huge bonus of MR is that the user can get up-and-running with the technology relatively quickly. All that’s required to enjoy it is an MR headset (which has all the necessary processing power built-in) and the apps and/or software that retailers want to make use of. 

The apps/software dictates how the headset is used, and there will undoubtedly be a huge amount of development in the coming years. In fact, there are several companies out there working directly with the leading independent software vendors to develop retailer-specific solutions that can deliver huge added value.

Conclusion 

At a time in which retailers are looking for ways to attract shoppers back into stores and deliver new consumer experiences – both in-store and online – MR technology is an extremely strong proposition. While it might also be pricey, this financial burden can be eased through the use of highly practical subscription models. The result? A cutting-edge, MR-enabled store that is also financially viable.

Author: Tim Morgan-Hoole, managing director of JTRS

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